Advertising poster for the two Empresses, 1906
Canadian Pacific Line built ships specifically to pick up the immigrants, out of Europe via Liverpool and into Canada. Two purpose-built ships were The Empress of Ireland and The Empress of Britain, launched in 1906. Larger, faster and more comfortable than other ships built for this route, they soon became very popular. The Empress of Ireland provided accommodation for 310 first-class passengers, 470 second-class passengers and 750 third-class passengers, giving a total payload of 1,580 paying clients. Life aboard was comfortable for 1st and 2nd class passengers, but not the last word in luxury.
Leaving Europe, immigrants to Canada on the Empress, 1910
The Empress of Ireland left Quebec City for Liverpool on the 25th of May 1914 with 1,477 passengers and crew. It was sailing down the Saint Lawrence River and sank after a collision at 2 AM with a Norwegian ship, in impossibly dense fog. If people would like to read the details of the crash, I recommend two blogs: Curling History and the Nineteen Keys and the Lure of a Furious Sea.
Most people on board were sound asleep in their cabins. The liner sank in 14.5 minutes and the only people who escaped were those on the upper decks; they had time to get out of bed and into life boats, before their cabins were flooded. Had all the passengers been awake, they were so close to shore (6.5 ks) they could have practically saved themselves on local fishing boats.
This accident claimed 1,024 passenger and crew lives, making it the most catastrophic maritime disaster in Canadian history. Compare this tragedy with the better known Titanic when 1517 people died, only two years early.
Sinking of the Empress of Ireland, Life Magazine, 1914
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland in May 1914 was a totally unplanned civilian accident, not an act of war. But I wonder if people in Europe already felt that war was imminent and that 1914 was going to be their last opportunity to find a new life abroad. And World War One did indeed start in September 1914.
The irony was that the Empress was on a return trip TO Liverpool when it sank. In fact the passengers included a large delegation (167) of members of the Canadian Salvation Army band who were excited to be going to London for an international conference. At Mt Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto there is a moving monument to those 167 drowned Salvation Army delegates.
The Empress of Ireland Pavilion in Quebec presents the history of the Empress of Ireland, from its building in the Liverpool docks in 1906 to its tragic sinking in Quebec in 1914. In particular it displays artefacts from the wreckage of the ocean liner. The Pointe-au-Père Lighthouse, which was erected in 1909 and is one of the tallest in Canada, played a central role in navigation history on the St Lawrence River.
On the other side of the Atlantic, exhibitions are at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. The former Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery on the first floor of the museum closed in 2014 and the space has now reopened as a new gallery Lusitania: life, loss, legacy.
Empress of Ireland Pavilion, Pointe-au-Père, Quebec